After two years of watching their heroes scramble up from absurdity, Washington Capitals fans this season are expecting bigger leaps and bounds, climaxed by entry into the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The playoffs are a reasonable goal, but by no means a certainty. The Capitals, although respectable, competitive and improving, are not Supermen. They enter training camp Monday at Hershey, Pa., with few areas of substantial improvement and many question marks.
"All I'm promising is that the club will be prepared 80 times," said coach Tom McVie. "What we'll win I don't know. Our club last year played on emotion. We might have trouble competing with what we did last year."
The Capitals are stronger at center with the addition of Walt McKechnie from Detroit. They figure to benefit from the experience gained by younger players, and by McVie himself.
But the last-minute defection of defensemen Robert Picard, on the heels of goalie Ron Low's departure for Detroit, leaves some questions to to be answered. Even should the courts order Picard to play in Washington, his motivation must be suspect.
McVie thinks newcomer Gary Smith "can do the job" vacated by Low, but McVie admits Smith is the "biggest question mark." The 3-year-old goalie was sharp and in excellent condition during last week's early-bird camp at Ford Dupont, and if he has a strong season it would compensate for short-comings elsewhere.
Last year the Capitals benefited from superb conditioning and, with off-ice drills added to each practice this season, they should be in even better shape. Other teams, however, impressed by the Capitals' results, have concentrated on fitness this summer, and figure to reduce Washington's edge in that area.
The addition of McKechnie and Doug Gibson gives the Capitals six capable centers. With the scarcity of competent wings, there are likely to be thoughts of shifting a center to the flanks and general manager Max McNab already was decreed that he will retain "the best 12 forwards."
Guy Charron, Ron Lalonde and Rick Bragnalo have served as wings before. Charron playing on the left side of McKechnie for Team Canada in April. Charron, the Capitals' leading scorer, wants no part of such a shift, however.
Charron, who injured a knee during the World Championships, is one of several Capitals who await the first scrimmaging to see if they are 100 per cent fit. Rick Green wore casts on his broken right wrist for six months, while Mike Lampman has not played since undergoing surgery in December for vertebrae slippage.
Besides Smith and McKechnie, newcomers conceded a chance to make the final 19 are Gibson, obtained on waivers from Boston; wing Hank Nowak, who released by the Bruins; wing Mark Lofthouse, the second-round amateur draft pick, and wing John Stewart, a teammate of Craig Patrick with the disbanded Minnesota Fighting Saints.
The biggest lift toward playoff status came not from personnel changes but from the front office, which lobbied for and won a change in the playoff structure. This season the Capitals need only be among the top 12 point collectors to qualify, whereas last year they faced the difficult task of finishing among the top three in the Norris Division. Under the new format, only the division champion is an automatic playoff qualifier.
The regular-season schedule, commencing Oct. 14 with home game against Pittsburgh, was not designed for a fast getaway by Washington. Of the next six games, only one is at Capital Centre, and the opponent is Stanley Cup chammpion Montreal.
McVie is pleased by the enthusiasm of the Capitals' fans, but he hopes they will retain a bit of the patience that characterized the first three seasons.
"I'd like to be as good as people around think we will," McVie said. "Then we'd have a heck of a team. I wish we were. We do have a young, aggressive hockey club, but we really haven't done anything yet.
"We have improvement at center with McKechnie, and I think Gary Smith can do the job. Otherwise, we have the same guys who've been losing. We were under 500 last year (24-42-14). I'd like to think I'll be a better coach and I'd like to think the players will be ahead through self-improvement. The playoffs certainly are not out of the question. I think we're going to be an improved hockey club, but Idon't think Montreal will try to get out of our division."